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Adam Mann at Wired.com reveals a startling truth: if you build roads, people will drive on them!
In 2009, two economists—Matthew Turner of the University of Toronto and Gilles Duranton of the University of Pennsylvania—decided to compare the amount of new roads and highways built in different U.S. cities between 1980 and 2000, and the total number of miles driven in those cities over the same period.
“We found that there’s this perfect one-to-one relationship,” said Turner.
If a city had increased its road capacity by 10 percent between 1980 and 1990, then the amount of driving in that city went up by 10 percent. If the amount of roads in the same city then went up by 11 percent between 1990 and 2000, the total number of miles driven also went up by 11 percent. It’s like the two figures were moving in perfect lockstep, changing at the same exact rate.
Mann goes on to explain that building more roads to reduce traffic is “fruitless” because drivers will take advantage of the greater capacity to travel more frequently. And that really is the sum of his point.
Now, I don’t want to respond to narrow-mindedness with more of the same. I understand Mann’s point of view. It’s true that traffic congestion is vexing, and it’s reasonable to want it to go away. Most big highways I’ve seen (with the notable exception of some in Arizona festooned with gorgeous rock mosaics) are ugly and dehumanizing. Human behavior turns ugly from behind a steering wheel. And traffic makes pollution.
Thus I concede the reasonable origins of the anti-trafficist point of view. What is so drearily irritating in this case is that Adam Mann does not return the favor.
Mann will not address the obvious conclusion: bigger highways allow for more driving, which allows for more human freedom.
Well, wait; he almost addresses it:
The answer has to do with what roads allow people to do: move around. As it turns out, we humans love moving around. And if you expand people’s ability to travel, they will do it more, living farther away from where they work and therefore being forced to drive into town. Making driving easier also means that people take more trips in the car than they otherwise would.
The problem in Mann’s mind is that all this moving around is bad. Implicitly, humans acting upon their own individual choice is destructive. The tragedy of the commons is always tragic, because everything is a commons. Or something.
Mann is a big fan of “congestion pricing.” This is a top-down system for imposing extra costson using roads in high-demand times and places. The problem is that real-world implementations of such schemes are much less successful than Mann glibly asserts. The real experience, as shown in London and a few other pioneering cities, has fallen well short of the ideal.
I’m not opposed to congestion pricing in principle. I think it might be least disruptivel as applied to parking and subway use, where one simply tinkers with existing payment systems. But, researchers note the problem is far more complex than the simplistic “solutions” so far proposed. As Robert Cervero summarizes:
True social-cost pricing of metropolitan travel has proven to be a theoretical ideal that so far has eluded real-world implementation. The primary obstacle is that except for professors of transportation economics and a cadre of vocal environmentalists, few people are in favor of considerably higher charges for peak-period travel. Middle-class motorists often complain they already pay too much in gasoline taxes and registration fees to drive their cars, and that to pay more during congested periods would add insult to injury. In the United States, few politicians are willing to champion the cause of congestion pricing for fear of reprisal from their constituents. Critics also argue that charging more to drive is elitist policy, pricing the poor off of roads so that the wealthy can move about unencumbered. It is for all these reasons that peak-period pricing remains a pipe dream in the minds of many.
It reminds me of the complaints after airline deregulation: airports are overrun with commoners!
On the other hand, a natural, market-based system of congestion pricing exists. We call it “congestion”! Ordinary people, in the privacy of their sovereign minds, have concluded, contrary to the will of people like Mann, that they’d rather pay for travel in peak hours and locations via wasted time instead of tolls. You can argue that they’re wrong. You can even strike a condescending pose toward such vulgar opinion. Just don’t assume such ideas are founded on an ignorance that will shatter when confronted by a brilliant refutation at Wired.
Indeed, people make reasonable calculations about congestion all the time. I live in Ann Arbor. I’ve learned not to travel anywhere near Michigan Stadium on football Saturdays. I don’t need some knucklehead mayor with some elaborate, annoying system of toll booths or license plate-reading spy cameras to help me figure that out.